House Republicans—the group led by Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—have popularized a term they are seeking to exploit politically: the “weaponization of government.” One of their first steps after (barely) electing McCarthy as speaker was to set up a select committee to investigate WOG and anoint Jordan its chair. The supposed aim of this panel is to probe abuses of law enforcement and national security agencies, particularly those that have allegedly targeted conservatives. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with Congress scrutinizing the executive branch to guarantee the rights of citizens are not trampled. But that’s not what’s happening here.
Jordan, an election denier who schemed with Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 results, demonstrated this the day the House GOP voted to establish the committee. On the House floor, he responded to the Democratic charge that his investigation was merely a right-wing ploy. “A ploy?” he indignantly exclaimed. “It's not a ploy when the Department of Justice treats parents as terrorists, moms and dads who are simply showing up at a school board meeting to advocate for their son or daughter. A ploy? It's not a ploy when the FBI pays Twitter $3 million, not one, not two, but $3 million to censor American citizens.”
Both these allegations are false—far-right urban myths or, perhaps more accurately, conservative disinformation. The Justice Department did not, as McCarthy, Jordan, and other Republicans have repeatedly complained, brand parents who attended school board meetings “terrorists.” And the FBI did not pay Twitter $3 million to censor Americans. Jordan’s citation of these proven-false allegations shows his goal is to use BS to whip up the right-wing grievance and paranoia that Fox News loves to spread.
This entire GOP WOG scam is an outgrowth of one of the first Republican hoaxes of the Trump era: the denial of Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 election. To counter the ugly reality that Trump won the White House in part due to covert assistance from Moscow and that he and his campaign aided and abetted that assault, Trump and his defenders cooked up the notion that a Deep State cabal had orchestrated a phony scandal to keep Trump out of power and then undermine his presidency. Jordan has been one of the loudest advocates of this false conspiracy theory. (He has even included me in his rants). In his distorted-reality view, the US government’s investigation of the Kremlin’s attack and the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia was the original WOG. And as a chief Trump ally during Trump’s first impeachment, Jordan claimed Trump was being persecuted by a Deep State that had weaponized national security agencies to destroy his presidency.
Trump-Russia denialism—necessary for Republicans who wish to untaint Trump’s presidency and cover up his profound betrayal of the United States—begot WOG, and now McCarthy, Jordan, and their compatriots will deploy the subpoena power they have recently gained to mount a variety of WOG witch hunts. They will not use this new committee to scrutinize a true instance of weaponizing the federal government that occurred at Trump’s behest: the investigation of the Trump-Russia scandal conducted by special counsel John Durham.
A few days ago, the New York Times published an eye-popping article on Durham’s efforts. The headline that appeared in the hard copy—“The Long Futile Search into the Russia Inquiry”—did not do the piece justice. The story depicted a run-amok prosecutor chasing conspiracy theories and abusing his power to serve a political agenda and advance disinformation, all to benefit Trump.
In 2019, you will recall, then–Attorney General William Barr assigned US attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation. The mission was to prove Trump’s baseless assertion that the probe had been fraudulently engineered by the Deep State. Here was Barr perverting the Justice Department to help the boss. Trump cheered the effort, and his followers eagerly awaited Durham’s exposure of the Russia hoax conspiracy and foresaw Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and others being locked up for their participation in this diabolical plot.
Durham, once known as a play-it-straight federal prosecutor, appeared to be their man. When the Justice Department inspector general in December 2019 released a report that both lambasted the FBI for improperly using the Steele dossier to obtain a top-secret search warrant for a former Trump adviser and concluded that the bureau’s Trump-Russia investigation had been legitimate, Durham, with his own investigation far from finished, took the highly unusual step of issuing a comment on this finding: “We do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.” Trumpers saw this as a sign that Durham would soon reveal that the Deep State had conspired against Trump. Who knows how many of the bad guys would be arrested?
Well, no. Durham, Barr’s hired hitman, never produced anything of the kind. He brought two tangential cases that he lost and obtained a guilty plea in the minor case of an FBI lawyer who acknowledged altering an email to obtain that search warrant. During one of his two failed prosecutions, Durham even placed on a witness stand an FBI analyst who affirmed the Trump-Russia investigation had been appropriately launched. He produced no evidence of a Deep State plot or what we now would call WOG.
The Times’ deep dive into Durham’s probe reveals how it was his investigation that was weaponized. The paper notes that the investigation was profoundly flawed and that the justification for opening it was “strained.” It was “roiled by internal dissent and ethical disputes.”
Throughout the inquiry, according to the Times, Durham did not keep his distance from Barr, who publicly had undermined special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russian attack and who had falsely declared that the Trump-Russia investigation was bogus. “Mr. Durham,” the paper reports, “visited Mr. Barr in his office for at times weekly updates and consultations about his day-to-day work. They also sometimes dined and sipped Scotch together.” How clubby. Durham, the paper says, “came to embrace” Barr’s “intense feelings about the Russia investigation.” That is, he became a crusader committed to proving Trump’s self-protecting conspiracy theory.
Barr and Durham traveled together to Britain and Italy to press the intelligence services in these countries to provide information on material they had supposedly relayed to the United States, apparently believing the Brits and the Italians had helped US intelligence frame Trump. Both governments insisted they had not done so. The newspaper also discloses that Barr and Durham together tried to subvert the Justice Department IG report that blew apart the claim the Russia probe was phony.
On his own, Durham appears to have committed prosecutorial abuses. He used “Russian intelligence memos—suspected by other US officials of containing disinformation—to gain access to emails of an aide to George Soros, the financier and philanthropist who is a favorite target of the American right and Russian state media.” This means he did exactly what he was supposedly investigating the FBI for—using unconfirmed information to justify investigating an American citizen. The suspected Russian disinformation claimed that a Soros aide and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) had discussed in 2016 how then–Attorney General Loretta Lynch had supposedly promised to keep a lid on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of emails. (The aide and Wasserman Schultz ardently denied this.) A judge said this iffy Russian material was too weak to use as a basis for a subpoena, but Durham found a way to make an end-run and obtained access to the emails of the Soros aide and Soros’ foundation. Durham, though, seemingly came up empty and filed no charges related to this.
Durham’s No. 2, Nora Dannehy, objected to his tactics and other Durham steps (including a proposed move to release a final report that incorporated disputed information right before the 2020 election) and resigned. Two other prosecutors on his team quit after concluding the evidence for a case Durham brought against a Democratic lawyer was too thin. This was one of the pair of cases Durham lost.
The Times article also includes this intriguing nugget: While Durham and Barr were searching for a nonexistent Italian intelligence connection to the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, “Italian officials—while denying any role in setting off the Russia investigation—unexpectedly offered a potentially explosive tip linking Mr. Trump to certain suspected financial crimes...But rather than assign it to another prosecutor, Mr. Barr had Mr. Durham investigate the matter himself.” The newspaper apparently could not dig up any more details on these possible Trump crimes. There’s no public indication whether Durham investigated this thoroughly. It seems possible that he and Barr buried the matter.
Durham, whose investigation seems done, has yet to file a final report, which could be released to the public. Yet given what’s now known about his biases and skewed investigation, it will be hard to accept any report from him as a good-faith endeavor. Still, it’s likely to be Fox-bait, big time.
The Durham endeavor is precisely the sort of law enforcement activity that a committee examining the “weaponization of government” ought to investigate. Barr initiated it for brazen political reasons, and Durham ran a rigged investigation that failed to yield the desired results for Trump and Barr. This was WOG at its worst. A House committee concerned about out-of-control government agencies would want to probe this. Yet I have a suspicion that Durham’s misguided expedition will not make Jordan’s to-do list. Moreover, a House committee sincerely fixated on the Justice Department’s integrity would certainly find it important to determine whether Barr and Durham appropriately handled the dicey matter of investigating possible Trump financial crimes. That, too, may not be on Jordan’s agenda.
The WOG inquisition will chase ghosts and generate disinformation. As we’ve learned in recent years, with Trump and the Republicans, the charges they level against their political foes are often projections of their own misdeeds and dishonorable intentions. Durham’s inquiry is a perfect example of the “weaponization of government.” The House committee’s refusal to examine this abuse of government power will be the perfect example of the WOG con.
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